For Wynonna Judd, Music is Love

When Wynonna Judd answers the phone and is asked how she’s doing, she doesn’t reply with the typical, “I’m good.” “I’m grateful,” she responds. “I have a lot to be thankful for, as well as a lot that I’m dealing with. But that’s life.” 

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Before talking to American Songwriter,Judd was going through the drawers in her home just outside of Nashville, disposing of items she no longer uses. “I think about a lot of people who don’t have the same privileges that I do,” she continues. “I’m grateful that I have things to purge.” Judd chooses to operate in a state of gratitude seven months after her mother Naomi Judd, the matriarch of their duo The Judds, died at the age of 76 after a long tenure with mental illness. Her death occurred one day before The Judds were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and five months before they were to embark on The Judds: The Final Tour. To honor her mother’s memory and legacy, Wynonna decided to go on the tour alone, inviting fellow country superstars Ashley McBryde, Kelsea Ballerini, Faith Hill, Brandi Carlile, Little Big Town, and Martina McBride to join her along the way. While she has much to be grateful for, the eldest Judd daughter acknowledges that she also carries the weight of the darkness she’s faced with, something she doesn’t try to hide from fans. “I do a lot of talking about the blessings, but I’m also writing songs right now, and one of the lines in a song that I just wrote says, I’m somewhere between hell and hallelujah,” she shares. “So don’t mistake my joy and grateful spirit for the fact that I walk in darkness an awful lot. That’s the balance between light and dark.”

[RELATED: Wynonna Judd Talks Grief and First Holiday Without Mother Naomi]

Through that darkness, music serves as the beacon of light, something Judd has experienced since childhood. Born and raised in Ashland, Kentucky, as the first-born daughter of Naomi, joined four years later by sister Ashley Judd, music is in Wynonna’s blood. She first felt that innate spark when she took the stage at her eighth grade graduation singing “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, dressed in a second-hand wedding gown that her mother found at a consignment shop. After belting her heart out to Mitchell’s classic song, she felt the love she poured into the performance when she received an affirming letter from her teacher that said, “You are as special as I told you.” “I remember singing and feeling really special,” Judd recalls of the defining moment. “The first time anyone ever said outside of my family and friends, ‘I am receiving something spectacular that you’re giving,’ I remember that exchange and going, ‘I want this feeling.’ Whether it’s at my eighth grade graduation or it’s in front of 80,000 people, I know what that feeling is. I remember being immediately addicted to that feeling of love.”

Though Judd knew she had a strong passion for music, turning music into a career wasn’t so much a choice as it was something that happened to her. Judd recalls being an insecure 18-year-old with a big voice when she and Naomi signed a record deal with RCA Records as The Judds in 1983. “By the time I realized that I loved singing, it was too late in terms of fame and fortune—fame and fortune happened to me,” she says. “I don’t know that I had the ambition my mother did, but I was such a dreamer. I don’t know that I had any discipline.” 

Wynonna (Photo by Joseph Llanes)

The Judds performed live for the first time in 1984 opening for the Statler Brothers in Omaha, Nebraska. Though talented enough to be opening for one of the most popular country groups at the time, that wasn’t enough to ease Wynonna’s nerves. The singer peeked through the curtain before the start of the show and was met with a bout of stage fright upon seeing the audience filling up the room. “I remember standing there saying, ‘I want to go home,’ because I’m an introvert,” Wynonna recites what she told her mother. “And she looked at me and said, ‘Just sing.’ And the rest is history.” The performance set the stage for The Judds to become one of the most successful duos in country music history, winning five Grammy Awards and nearly twice as many CMA Awards, releasing six studio albums, two live albums, and a slew of greatest hits albums in their record-setting seven years together.

Throughout their expansive career, the mother-daughter duo captivated the hearts of fans with their nearly 20 Top 10 hits, including “Love Can Build a Bridge,” “Mama He’s Crazy,” “Why Not Me,” “Love is Alive” and countless others. Their catalog is built on a foundation of country music storytelling, with lyrics that range from that’s what a woman wants in “Give a Little Love” to the timeless message of unity in “Love Can Build a Bridge.” Among Judd’s fondest memories are getting to perform at the White House for then-President Ronald Reagan (“I had gone from the mall to the White House thinking, ‘This is big time,’” she shares), making their Austin City Limits debut in 1985, and receiving an unexpected invitation from The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson to join him on the couch for an interview after a captivating performance of one of their signature hits, “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” where he raved that they were “marvelous.” “If he invited you over after you performed, then that meant he was giving you the seal of approval,” Judd details. After disbanding in 1991, The Judds reunited for another career milestone performing “Love Can Build a Bridge” at Super Bowl XXVIII in 1994, leading a stadium-sized sing-a-long featuring fellow halftime headliners Travis Tritt and Tanya Tucker. 

But behind the glitz and glamour was a series of struggles rooted in their complicated relationship. Judd says that the biggest challenge she faced at the start of their career was “not letting anger show up in my performance or my art because of sharing a bus with my mother.” “That was the reality,” she explains. Describing Naomi as a “very strict” mother who had a tendency to snap her fingers and publicly correct her daughter, Wynonna struggled with learning how to not “react” on camera during those frustrating moments, so much so that the record label sent her through media training. “We’re mother and daughter; there’s no way to change that dynamic,” Judd asserts. “It was me learning how to try to find the joy in the experience and not allow that particular agitation of mother correcting me or saying, ‘You need to not wear your lipstick so dark.’ It was learning to be better, not bitter. That was the biggest challenge was to learn how to let the music be the loudest noise in my head.” Judd let the music lead upon embarking on her solo career.

In 1991, Naomi announced that she was retiring from music after years of living with depression and receiving a hepatitis C diagnosis, a potentially fatal disease that would keep her off the road. In the midst of their farewell tour, Wynonna was shocked when her manager at the time informed her that it was time to start thinking about a solo career. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ It never occurred to me, it really didn’t, because it wasn’t time. Life was happening in front of me,” she says of her reaction to the thought of possibly losing her mother to the illness. Describing the experience of going solo to being “cattle prodded,” Wynonna was thrust into the spotlight on her own when her manager booked her on the 1992 American Music Awards to perform her debut single, “She Is His Only Need.” The performance marked the beginning of a highly successful solo career for Wynonna that launched with three consecutive No. 1 hits, including her debut single, “I Saw the Light,” and “No One Else on Earth.” Her self-titled debut album reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and the Top 5 on the all-genre Billboard 200, amassing sales of more than five million copies to date. Her following two albums, Tell Me Why in 1993 and Revelations in 1996, both earned platinum certification by the RIAA and collectively produced half a dozen Top 10 hits, including “Tell Me Why,” “Girls With Guitars,” and “To Be Loved by You.” She’s since released a total of nine solo studio albums, solidifying herself as one of the best-selling country artists of all time. 

[RELATED: Wynonna Judd Offers Mental Health Check-In: “I’m Okay”]

“My barometer at the time, and I still use this, the hair on my neck would stand up,” she says, describing how she selects songs. Hearing the songwriters sing their tracks live was a  “great indicator” if a song was the right fit, she notes, as evidenced by songwriter Dave Loggins singing “She is His Only Need” for her face-to-face, snapping his fingers all the while. “I was going, ‘This is very sexy and sultry. There’s something going on with this song.’ I felt like he was telling me a story,” Judd says, describing her first instinct hearing the tune that became her first No. 1 as a solo artist. Songs had a way of finding Wynonna. When she was pitched the demo for “Come Some Rainy Day” while sitting in her car, raindrops started to hit the windshield just as the song started playing. “I went, ‘This is meant to be,’” Judd says of the “holy” moment “Rainy Day” became a Top 15 hit for her in 1998. She cites her 1993 hit “Only Love” as “one of the greatest songs I’ve ever recorded,” on account of her personal connection to lyrics like Only love sails straight from the harbor/And only love will lead us to the other shore/And out of all the flags I’ve flown/One flies high and stands alone/Only love. “The ones that really struck me were things that I was going through personally,” she says.  

This still rings true, except now, Wynonna is telling her story in her own words. She’s currently in the process of writing new music, gaining much inspiration while out on the road, and finding joy in the midst of the sorrow. “Broken and Blessed” is born from the deep pain she’s experienced in recent years, between her daughter Grace being incarcerated in 2017 and the loss of her mother in 2022. “Those two things really took me to a real honest look at my life,” Judd reflects. I‘m somewhere between hell and hallelujah isn’t just a lyric in the unreleased song, but a state of being for Wynonna, as she recalls being in the hospital at her mother’s bedside after her passing, gazing down at her face. “I had to walk away, and in that walking away, I remember literally saying under my breath, ‘This is what hell feels like. This is hell on earth.’ I got in the car and I held on to what they call the ride or die bar and I literally said, ‘Now what do I do?’” Judd shares. “Those moments define you in a way that you’re not prepared for, ever, and when they happen to you, they take your breath away. You have to decide whether you’re going to be bitter or better.”

Judd is finding the answers in the music as she sings for thousands of fans each night on tour, particularly one of The Judds’ signature hits, “Love is Alive,” which speaks to the everlasting love that can be found in life’s sweet and simple moments. “I’m looking out into an audience where I see three and four generations and I see a man weeping. Music is the healer, I believe that now more than I ever have believed in anything in my life,” she professes. “I think that this tour allowed me to see the best and the worst of life, so I’m going to have to write about it. I stay in the songwriting because it gives me something to hope for.”

Judd is channeling her experiences on the road into song, with plans to go back into the studio and record new music after the holidays before the remaining dates of The Judds Tour kick off at the end of January 2023. At the core of all of it is love, similar to what she felt as a young girl singing in a wedding dress in front of her eighth grade class—her passion for music burning as bright as ever.

“‘Love Is Alive’ is one of the biggest moments on stage still to this day. It’s still important to me and I perform it every night, and the audience sings back to me and it’s like prayer. ‘Love Is Alive’ is a song that I think we need more of today than ever. Love is the only thing that works for me; otherwise, my ego gets involved, and that’s my biggest challenge. I can feel that love,” Judd proclaims. “I think that love is what I’m looking for more so than ever before.”

Photo by Caleb Chandler / True PR 

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